The following text is taken from Teacher Man, which is set in New York in the
Sal Battaglia smiled every morning and said, Hi, teach. Sal sat with his
girlfriend, Louise, and looked happy. When they held hands across the aisle
everyone walked around them because it was understood this was the real
thing. Someday Sal and Louise would be married and that was sacred.
Sal’s Italian family and Louise’s Irish family didn’t approve, but at least the
wedding would be Catholic and
that was OK. Sal joked to the class his family
worried he might starve to death with an Irish wife on account of how the Irish
can’t cook. He said his mother wondered how the Irish survived at all. Louise
spoke up, said they could say what they liked, but the Irish had the most
beautiful babies in the world. Sal blushed. Cool Italian, nearly eighteen, with
the mass of black curly hair, actually blushed. Louise laughed and we all
laughed when she reached across the aisle to touch the redness of his face
with her delicate white hand.
The class went quiet when Sal took her hand and kept it against his face.
You could see his eyes glistening with tears. What came over him? I stood
with my back to the blackboard, not knowing what to say or do, not wanting to
break the spell. At a time like this how could I go on with our discussion of The
I went behind my desk, pretended to be busy, silently took the attendance
again, filled out a form, waited
for the bell to ring in ten minutes, watched Sal
and Louise leave, hand in hand, and envied them the way everything was laid
out. After graduation there would be an engagement. Sal would become a
master plumber, Louise a legal stenographer, the highest you can go in the
secretarial world unless you got the crazy notion to become a lawyer. I told
Louise she was bright enough to be anything, but she said no no, what would
her family say? She had to earn a living, get ready for her life with Sal. She’d
cooking so she wouldn’t be beholden all the time to Sal’s mother. A year after the wedding a baby would appear, a little round well-fed Italian-
Irish-American baby and that would bring the two families together forever and
who cared what countries their parents came from.
None of that happened because of an Irish kid who went after Sal in a
Prospect Park gang rumble and clobbered him with a two-by-four. Sal didn’t
even belong to a gang. He was just passing through
delivering an order from
the restaurant where he worked nights and weekends. He and Louise knew
these gang wars were stupid, especially with the Irish and Italians, who were
all Catholic and white. So why? What was it all about? Something called turf,
territory, even worse, girls. Hey, get your guinea
hands off my girl. Get your
fat mick ass out of our neighborhood. Sal and Louise could understand
rumbling with the Puerto Ricans or the Negroes, but not one another, for
Sal returned wearing a bandage to cover his stitches. He swung over to
the right side of the room, well away from Louise. He ignored the class and no
one looked at him or spoke to him. Louise took her old seat, tried to catch his
eye. She turned toward me as if I had answers or could fix things. I felt
inadequate and indecisive. Should I go back there, squeeze her shoulder,
whisper encouraging words about how Sal would get over this? Should I go to
Sal, apologize for the Irish race, tell him you can’t judge a whole people by the
actions of one lout in Prospect Park, remind him Louise was still lovely, still
How are you supposed to discuss the conclusion of The Scarlet Letter,
the happy end for Hester and Pearl, with Louise sitting a few rows back, her
heart broken, Sal staring straight ahead ready to murder the first Irishman to
cross his path?
Ray Brown raised his hand. Good old Ray, always stirring the pot. Hey,
Mr. McCourt, how come no
Negroes in this book?
I must have looked blank. Everyone but Louise and Sal laughed. I don’t
know, Ray. I don’t think they had Negroes in old New England.
Sal jumped from his seat. Yeah, they had Negroes, Ray, but the Irish
killed them all. Snuck up behind them and busted their heads.
Oh, yeah? said Ray.
Yeah, said Sal. He picked up his bag, walked out, made his way to the
guidance office. The counselor told me Sal asked for a transfer to Mr.
Campbell’s class, who at least wasn’t Irish, and didn’t have that stupid accent.
You could never imagine Mr. Campbell hitting you from behind with a two-by-
four, but, That McCourt. He’s Irish and you can never trust those sneaky
I did not know what to do about Sal. It was three months to graduation
and I should have tried to talk to him
but I was unsure of what to say. In the
school hallways I often saw teachers comforting kids. Arm around the
shoulder. The warm hug. Don’t worry, everything will be OK. Boy or girl saying
thank you, tears, teacher squeezing shoulder one last time. That’s what I
wanted to do. Should I have told Sal I was not a two-by-four-wielding lout?
Should I have insisted on telling him how unfair it was to make Louise suffer
for the actions of someone who was probably drunk? Oh, you know how the
Irish are, Sal. And he would have
laughed and said, OK, Irish have that
problem, and made up with Louise.
From: Frank McCourt, Teacher Man, New York 2005
 The Scarlet Letter: novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne, set in 17th-century Boston
 Prospect Park: public park in Brooklyn
 two-by-four: piece of wood cut to be long and straight
 guinea: here: offensive word for Italian